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Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

30 OCTOBER, 2013

How Our Minds Mislead Us: The Marvels and Flaws of Our Intuition


“The confidence people have in their beliefs is not a measure of the quality of evidence but of the coherence of the story that the mind has managed to construct.”

Every year, intellectual impresario and Edge editor John Brockman summons some of our era’s greatest thinkers and unleashes them on one provocative question, whether it’s the single most elegant theory of how the world works or the best way to enhance our cognitive toolkit. This year, he sets out on the most ambitious quest yet, a meta-exploration of thought itself: Thinking: The New Science of Decision-Making, Problem-Solving, and Prediction (public library) collects short essays and lecture adaptations from such celebrated and wide-ranging (though not in gender) minds as Daniel Dennett, Jonathan Haidt, Dan Gilbert, and Timothy Wilson, covering subjects as diverse as morality, essentialism, and the adolescent brain.

One of the most provocative contributions comes from Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman — author of the indispensable Thinking, Fast and Slow, one of the best psychology books of 2012 — who examines “the marvels and the flaws of intuitive thinking.”

In the 1970s, Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky, self-crowned “prophets of irrationality,” began studying what they called “heuristics and biases” — mental shortcuts we take, which frequently result in cognitive errors. Those errors, however, reveal a great deal about how our minds work:

If you want to characterize how something is done, then one of the most powerful ways of characterizing how the mind does anything is by looking at the errors that the mind produces while it’s doing it because the errors tell you what it is doing. Correct performance tells you much less about the procedure than the errors do.

One of the most fascinating examples of heuristics and biases is what we call intuition — a complex cluster of cognitive processes, sometimes helpful but often misleading. Kahneman notes that thoughts come to mind in one of two ways: Either by “orderly computation,” which involves a series of stages of remembering rules and then applying them, or by perception, an evolutionary function that allows us to predict outcomes based on what we’re perceiving. (For instance, seeing a woman’s angry face helps us predict the general sentiment and disposition of what she’s about to say.) It is the latter mode that precipitates intuition. Kahneman explains the interplay:

There is no sharp line between intuition and perception. … Perception is predictive. . . . If you want to understand intuition, it is very useful to understand perception, because so many of the rules that apply to perception apply as well to intuitive thinking. Intuitive thinking is quite different from perception. Intuitive thinking has language. Intuitive thinking has a lot of word knowledge organized in different ways more than mere perception. But some very basic characteristics [of] perception are extended almost directly to intuitive thinking.

He then considers how the two types of mental operations established by modern cognitive science illuminate intuition:

Type 1 is automatic, effortless, often unconscious, and associatively coherent. . . . Type 2 is controlled, effortful, usually conscious, tends to be logically coherent, rule-governed. Perception and intuition are Type 1. … Type 2 is more controlled, slower, is more deliberate. . . . Type 2 is who we think we are. [And yet] if one made a film on this, Type 2 would be a secondary character who thinks that he is the hero because that’s who we think we are, but in fact, it’s Type 1 that does most of the work, and it’s most of the work that is completely hidden from us.

Type 1 also encompasses all of our practiced skills — for instance, driving, speaking, and understanding a language — which after a certain threshold of mastery enter autopilot mode. (Though this presents its own set of problems.) Underpinning that mode of thinking is our associative memory, which Kahneman unpacks:

You have to think of [your associative memory] as a huge repository of ideas, linked to each other in many ways, including causal links and other links, and activation spreading from ideas to other ideas until a small subset of that enormous network is illuminated, and the subset is what’s happening in the mind at the moment. You’re not conscious of it, you’re conscious of very little of it.

This leads to something Kahneman has termed “associative coherence” — the notion that “everything reinforces everything else.” Much like our attention, which sees only what it wants and expects to see, our associative memory looks to reinforce our existing patterns of association and deliberately discounts evidence that contradicts them. And therein lies the triumph and tragedy of our intuitive mind:

The thing about the system is that it settles into a stable representation of reality, and that is just a marvelous accomplishment. … That’s not a flaw, that’s a marvel. [But] coherence has its cost.

Coherence means that you’re going to adopt one interpretation in general. Ambiguity tends to be suppressed. This is part of the mechanism that you have here that ideas activate other ideas and the more coherent they are, the more likely they are to activate each other. Other things that don’t fit fall away by the wayside. We’re enforcing coherent interpretations. We see the world as much more coherent than it is.

Put another way, our chronic discomfort with ambiguity — which, ironically, is critical to both our creativity and the richness of our lives — leads us to lock down safe, comfortable, familiar interpretations, even if they are only partial representations of or fully disconnected from reality.

The Type 1 modality of thought gives rise to a System 1 of interpretation, which is at the heart of what we call “intuition” — but which is far less accurate and reliable than we like to believe:

System 1 infers and invents causes and intentions. [This] happens automatically. Infants have it. . . . We’re equipped … for the perception of causality.

It neglects ambiguity and suppresses doubt and … exaggerates coherence. Associative coherence [is] in large part where the marvels turn into flaws. We see a world that is vastly more coherent than the world actually is. That’s because of this coherence-creating mechanism that we have. We have a sense-making organ in our heads, and we tend to see things that are emotionally coherent, and that are associatively coherent.

But the greatest culprit in the failures of our intuition is another cognitive property Kahneman names “what you see is all there is” — a powerful and persistent flaw of System-1 thinking:

This is a mechanism that takes whatever information is available and makes the best possible story out of the information currently available, and tells you very little about information it doesn’t have. So what you get are people jumping to conclusions. I call this a “machine for jumping to conclusions.”

This jumping to conclusions, Kahneman adds, is immediate and based on unreliable information. And that’s a problem:

That will very often create a flaw. It will create overconfidence. The confidence people have in their beliefs is not a measure of the quality of evidence [but] of the coherence of the story that the mind has managed to construct. Quite often you can construct very good stories out of very little evidence. . . . People tend to have great belief, great faith in the stories that are based on very little evidence.

Most treacherous of all is our tendency to use our very confidence — and overconfidence — as evidence itself:

What’s interesting is that many a time people have intuitions that they’re equally confident about except they’re wrong. That happens through the mechanism I call “the mechanism of substitution.” You have been asked a question, and instead you answer another question, but that answer comes by itself with complete confidence, and you’re not aware that you’re doing something that you’re not an expert on because you have one answer. Subjectively, whether it’s right or wrong, it feels exactly the same. Whether it’s based on a lot of information, or a little information, this is something that you may step back and have a look at. But the subjective sense of confidence can be the same for intuition that arrives from expertise, and for intuitions that arise from heuristics. . . .

In other words, intuition, like attention, is “an intentional, unapologetic discriminator [that] asks what is relevant right now, and gears us up to notice only that” — a humbling antidote to our culture’s propensity for self-righteousness, and above all a reminder to allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind.

Thinking is excellent and mind-expanding in its entirety. Complement it with Brockman’s This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking, one of the best psychology books of 2012.

Public domain photographs via Flickr Commons

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30 OCTOBER, 2013

French Polymath Paul Valéry on “The Three-Body Problem”


“Everything that is masks for us something that might be.”

“It is in the thousands of days of trying, failing, sitting, thinking, resisting, dreaming, raveling, unraveling that we are at our most engaged, alert, and alive. … The body becomes irrelevant,” Dani Shapiro wrote in her beautiful meditation on the pleasures and perils of the creative life. And yet the body is the single most relevant, persistent, and unrelenting reality of our lives, a constant companion, on whom “we” — as much as we’re able to separate the “we” from the “it” — depend as much as “it” depends on “us,” an often ambivalent and conflicted codependence that endures, whether we like it or not, for as long as we are alive. Even consciousness itself can’t transcend the nesting-doll physical reality of the body that includes the brain that includes the mind that contemplates itself. But what, exactly, is the body as a conscious experience beyond a biological mass?

That’s precisely what legendary French polymath Paul Valéry (October 30, 1871–July 20, 1945) explores in his 1943 essay “Some Simple Reflections on the Body,” found in the altogether fantastic 1989 anthology Zone 4: Fragments for a History of the Human Body, Part 2 (public library), in which he poses “the three-body problem” — the trifecta of bodily realities that we each inhabit and struggle to integrate.

Illustration from 'The Human Body,' 1959. Click image for details.

He begins with the First Body, which possesses us more than we possess it and serves as a reference point to the world:

The [First Body] is the privileged object of which, at each instant, we find ourselves in possession, although our knowledge of it — like everything that is inseparable from the instant — may be extremely variable and subject to illusions. Each of us calls this object My Body, but we give it no name in ourselves, that is to say, in it. We speak of it to others as of a thing that belongs to us; but for us it is not entirely a thing; and it belongs to us a little less than we belong to it. . . .

It is for each of us, in essence, the most important object in the world, standing in opposition to the world, on which, however, it knows itself to be closely dependent. We can say that the world is based on it and exists in reference to it; or just as accurately, with a simple change in the adjustment of our intellectual vision, that the selfsame body is only an infinitely negligible, unstable event in the world.

There’s a particular amorphousness to this First Body:

The thing itself is formless: all we know of it by sight is the few mobile parts that are capable of coming within the conspicuous zone of the space which makes up this My Body, a strange, asymmetrical space in which distances are exceptional relations. I have no idea of the spatial relations between “My Forehead” and “My Foot,” between “My Knee” and “My Back.” … This gives rise to strange discoveries. My right hand is generally unaware of my left. To take one hand in the other is to take hold of an object that is not-I. These oddities must play a part in sleep and, if such things as dreams exist, must provide them with infinite combinations.

This First Body, Valéry argues, is “our most redoubtable antagonist,” for “it carries within it all constancy and all variation.” Then we get to the Second Body — the package of physical concreteness we present to others, as well as to ourselves:

Our Second Body is the one which others see, and an approximation of which confronts us in the mirror or in portraits. It is the body which has a form and is apprehended by the arts, the body on which materials, ornaments, armor sit, which love sees or wants to see, and yearns to touch.

Nude female anatomical figure, artist unknown, c. 1550. Click image for details.

This Second Body, with its cruel concreteness, is also the one that causes us distress — the part of our mortality paradox that makes it so burdensome and so distressing:

This is the body that was so dear to Narcissus, but that drives many to despair, and is a source of gloom to almost all of us once the time comes when we cannot help admitting that the aged creature in the glass, whom we do not accept, stands in some terrible close though incomprehensible relation to ourselves.

In some ways, this Second Body serves as surface protection for what goes on inside — that which we long so desperately to understand and make palpable, yet which remains largely mysterious and intangible:

One can live without ever having seen oneself, without knowing the color of one’s skin.

Man as Industrial Palace of Industry by Fritz Kahn, 1926. Click image for details.

This brings us to the Third Body, that of medicine’s fascination and the one best captured in the industrial-age vision for the body as a machine:

[The Third Body] has unity only in our thought, since we know it only for having dissected and dismembered it. To know it is to have reduced it to parts and pieces.

Complete Notes on the Dissection of Cadavers by Kaishi Hen, 1772. Click image for details.

And yet, Valéry suggests there is more to the human body than the abstract, the superficial, and the mechanical. He thus proposes a Fourth Body, which is distinct from the other three and is at once a Real Body and an Imaginary Body — a body of possibility:

My Fourth Body is neither more nor less distinct than is a whirlpool from the liquid in which it is formed. . . . The mind’s knowledge is a product of what this Fourth Body is not. Necessarily and irrevocably everything that is masks for us something that might be.

As Valéry brushes up against the inherent contradictions of this proposition, he hears “the Voice of the Absurd” within himself admonishing:

Think carefully: Where do you expect to find answers to these philosophical questions? Your images, your abstractions, derive only from the properties and experiences of your Three Bodies. But the first offers you nothing by moments; the second a few visions; and the third, at the cost of ruthless dissections and complicated preparations, a mass of figures more indecipherable than Etruscan texts. Your mind, with its language, pulverizes, mixes and rearranges all this and from it, by the abuse, if you will, of its habitual questionnaire, evolves its notorious problems; but it can give them a shadow of meaning only by tacitly presupposing a certain Nonexistence — of which my Fourth Body is a kind of incarnation.

Fragments for a History of the Human Body is excellent in its entirety. Complement it with Nancy Etcoff’s exploration of the science of beauty, which revisits Valéry’s theories with the lens of modern cognitive science and neurobiology.

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29 OCTOBER, 2013

A Very Large Head: The Phrenology of George Eliot


“She is extremely feminine & gentle; & the great strength of her intellect combined with this quality renders her very interesting.”

“One has to spend so many years in learning how to be happy,” Mary Ann Evans, better-known as George Eliot, wrote in a letter to a friend in 1844. Learning how to be happy, of course, is predicated on first learning how to be — a journey of self-knowledge and self-awareness that is sometimes disorienting, frequently uncertain, and always evolving. In our chronic discomfort with ambiguity and with the fluid nature of our character, we often yearn to anchor ourselves in something concretizing by seeking out answers from outside ourselves to tell us who we are. Eliot, despite her undeniable intellect, was no exception to this frailty of the human condition.

In George Eliot: Interviews and Recollections (public library), the famed British ribbon manufacturer and social reformer Charles Bray reflects on his nine years of close friendship with George Eliot, in whom he saw the same kind of generosity of spirit that Susan Sontag did in Borges. Bray writes:

I consider her the most delightful companion I have ever known: she knew everything. She had little self-assertion; her aim was always to show her friends off to the best advantage — not herself. She would polish up their witticisms, and give the credit to them.

But one particularly unusual thing brought Bray and Eliot together: Their shared interest in phrenology. Yes, phrenology — the same 19th-century pseudoscience that gave rise to the “high-brow” vs. “low-brow” mythology of popular culture and has since been relegated to fodder for pop-culture caricature and derision — the epitome of grasping for easy, tangible, and invariably misleading answers to the intangible complexity of the human soul. To know that even Eliot was susceptible to this is oddly assuring, as well as a testament to the fact that we’re all, at least to some degree, a product of our time with all its singular irrationalities and biases.

In 1844, Eliot went as far as having a cast taken of her head by the leading British phrenologist James De Ville, who had also cast the heads of such luminaries as William Blake, Richard Dale Owen, and Prince Albert. It was then used for the “diagnosis” of her character by the Scotsman George Combe, the leader of the phrenology movement. Bray recounts:

Miss Evans’s head is a very large one, 22¼ inches round; George Combe, on first seeing the cast, took it for a man’s.* The temperament, nervous lymphatic, that is, active without endurance, and her working hours were never more than from 9 a.m. till 1 p.m. … In her brain development the Intellect greatly predominates; it is very large, more in length than in its peripheral surface. In the Feelings, the Animal and the Moral regions are about equal; the moral being quite sufficient to keep the animal in order and in due subservience, but would not be spontaneously active. The social feelings were very active, particularly the adhesiveness. She was of a most affectionate disposition, always requiring some one to lean upon, preferring what has hitherto been considered the stronger sex, to the other and more impressible. She was not fitted to stand alone. Her sense of Character — of men and things, is a predominantingly intellectual one, with which the Feelings have little to do, and the exceeding fairness for which she is noted, towards all parties, towards all sects of denominations, is probably owing to her little feeling on the subject, — at least not enough to interfere with her judgment. She saw all sides, and they are always many, clearly, and without prejudice.

To be sure, Eliot didn’t take it all without a grain of salt. Two years earlier, she had written in a letter:

I am pronounced to possess a large organ of “adhesiveness,” a still larger one of “firmness,” and a large of conscientiousness. Hence if I should turn out a very weather cock and a most pitiful truckler you will have data for the exercise of faith maugre [notwithstanding] common sense, common justice, and the testimony of your eyes and ears.

In August of 1851, Eliot and a small group of friends visited with George Combe himself — the reigning godfather of phrenology for more than twenty years, and a great admirer of Eliot’s work. The evening of the visit, he revisited the subject of her head in his journal, after remarking that she was “the most extraordinary person in the party.”** Peeking from underneath the pseudoscience, however, is a very real observation about what lent Eliot her mesmerism — and what makes a person compelling in general:

She has a very large brain, the anterior lobe is remarkable for length, breadth, & height, the coronal region is large, the front rather predominating; the base is broad at Destruct[iveness]: but moderate at Aliment[iveness] & the portion behind the ear is rather small in the regions of Comb[ativeness], Amat[iveness] & Philopro[gentiveness]. Love of approb. and Concentrativeness are large. Her tempera[ment] is nervous lymphatic. She is rather tall, near 40 apparently,*** pale & in delicate health. She is an excellent musician. … She [showed] great analytic power & an instinctive soundness of judgment. … She is extremely feminine & gentle; & the great strength of her intellect combined with this quality renders her very interesting.

George Eliot: Interviews and Recollections is full of such unexpected curiosities shedding light on one of the most enigmatic and enthralling personae in literary history. Complement it with what Eliot teaches us about the life-cycle of happiness.

* In another recollection from the book, a woman named Susanna Chapman, the wife of publisher John Chapman, describes meeting Eliot for the first time and remarks, with rather ungenerous anatomical bluntness, on her head size: “She had such fine eyes, and the upper part of her face was so good, that it quite redeemed the lower part, which was large for a woman, and heavy set. I remember being struck to find how short she was when she rose from the tea-table.”

** Even Combe was cognizant of the limitations of his “science.” Three years later, upon finding out that Eliot had eloped to Germany with the married George Henry Lewes, with whom she went on to live for 20 years, Combe’s high opinion of her sound judgment and gentleness crumbled, and he even revisited this journal entry to add the following note: “This was written from eye-observation. She has gone off as the mistress of Mr. Lewes, a married man with 6 children.”

*** She was 31.

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